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October 25, 2013

Column: The level-headed truth

Three days after his Nittany Lions lost their first game of the 2013 season, Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien settled into the wheeling computer chair at the front of the Beaver Stadium media room.

Though clearly disappointed by the Nittany Lions' 34-31 loss to Central Florida, O'Brien patiently addressed questions of the assembled press and, by extension, the negatives and positives of his team's performance. With an even stroke, O'Brien made sure to temper nearly every question tossed his way.

Preaching a modus operandi extolling the virtues of a steady approach for himself as a head coach, his assistant coaching staff and, maybe most important, his players from week-to-week, win or lose, O'Brien managed to stick to the "public-demeanor playbook" he's established for the entire program in nearly two years at the helm.

"His demeanor really doesn't change at all," said wideout Allen Robinson of O'Brien's weekly persona, win or lose. "He's the same guy going in and going out of games throughout the week and throughout the season."

The catch being, of course, that the calm, unchanging disposition O'Brien hopes to display and instill goes against every fiber of his natural being.

Succeeding on this stage, for both coach and player, requires an inner-instability that fuels the will to constantly improve, and ultimately, win.

Intensely competitive, fiery and, frankly, moody at times internally, O'Brien has to work to practice what he preaches publicly. Though his players seem to understand this, O'Brien still makes every effort to take the same tact toward each new week on the Nittany Lions' schedule.

"I feel like he approaches every week like it's the same, regardless of a win or loss," said linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong. "Of course, if you lose, it's going to take a toll... not take a toll, but it's going to be on everybody's mind. I feel like his demeanor doesn't change. He's very consistent, whether we win or lose, and we work hard every week."

Consistency in refraining from emotional outbursts doesn't necessarily exclude the competitive demeanor that facilitates winning, though.

Oddly enough, it's a quality that O'Brien openly hinted about himself in contrasting his relationship with fifth-year senior quarterback Matt McGloin during the 2012 season and, now, Christian Hackenberg. Repeatedly citing Hackenberg's "demeanor" as one of the 18-year old's strength, both before the Rivals.com five-star's arrival on Penn State's campus and even more so since, O'Brien clearly values that laid-back vibe emanating from his shaggy-haired, generally-quiet quarterback.

"(Christian's) just got a really good demeanor. He's sure of himself. He knows he has good ability. He's a good person. He's a calm guy, which is great for me, because I'm not a calm guy," O'Brien said. "It's really good. Matt and I last year, sometimes obviously we had similar personalities. Christian is a calm guy and that's good. I think the team feeds off of that. The guys have a lot of confidence in him.

"Any time you're completing balls and running the offense the way he is right now, which is pretty decent, guys around you have confidence. That helps your whole role on the team, too. He'll continue to improve with that."

Yet, six games into his career as Penn State's starting quarterback, glimpses into Hackenberg's on-field persona also reveal a contrasting intensity in the throes of competition, not unlike that of O'Brien's.

Take, for instance, Allen Robinson's iconic 36-yard reception against Michigan from the Nittany Lions' 43-40 four-overtime win.

Leaping high above Wolverines' defender Channing Stribling, Robinson pulled down quarterback Hackenberg's perfectly-placed pass, landed a foot short of the end zone, and thrilled more than 107,000 fans at Beaver Stadium in the process. Gradually getting back to his feet, Robinson stood slowly to find out from the side judge whether or not he'd reached the goal line, hardly looking like a player that had just helped his team pull within a foot of tying the game.

By contrast, Hackenberg let out the emotion befitting of the momentous occasion while maintaining enough composure to organize the offense for its next play.

Though every attempt has been made to shield Hackenberg from saying or doing anything remotely controversial, focusing intently only on the football tasks at hand rather than the increasingly-distracting periphery, the moment revealed his true enthusiasm.

Ultimately guiding the Nittany Lions to the win, Hackenberg took questions from the media during the bye week leading into this weekend's big game against No. 4-ranked Ohio State.

Asked whether O'Brien is tougher on the team following a win or a loss, Hackenberg's response came as little surprise.

"He's really levelheaded," Hackenberg said. "He preaches to us getting better every day. Same type of approach. That's been our goal since preseason. It was a great win, but then again, we're getting back to it and we have another big game coming up next week."

For a player and coach that are less dissimilar in personalities than they'd ever let on, Penn State fans can expect their intensely-competitive natures - inside or out - to manifest themselves Saturday night in Columbus.



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